Every bite

When I announced that I'd be blogging daily this month in honor of NaBloPoMo, a reader named Lena requested a post about what I eat on a given day. Lena, this one's for you. 

Today over on Instagram I'll be posting photos of what I eat. All of it, in real time. Then, tonight, I'll collect some (or all?) (the best of?) (we'll see.) the images and put them up here as a kind of photo journal of the day. I'm @sweetamandine on Instagram, and you can follow along there or, if you don't have an account, right here.

This exercise is out of my comfort zone because I don't typically make photos of food to "document" it. (Aside from some of the shots on this site that I make to illustrate recipes, of course.) We seem to have much more trouble understanding photography as a representational medium than we do, say,  painting or sculpture. But when we pick up our cameras and snap away, we don't capture life as it is. What we get is an approximation, a representation. What we make is art. As Gary Winogrand famously said, "I photograph to find out what something will look like photographed." We're not collecting moments when we go out into the world with our cameras. We're making something of them.

When I photograph my food, it's because something's grabbed me. Often, it's that I've seen something that somehow matches what I'm feeling, and thereby draws my attention to that feeling. Sometimes I just think something's pretty. There's so much visual appeal in the moments of everyday life. A lunch on the table amidst papers and notes, a pizza place at closing time, a messy countertop, the people I love. I am not so moved by every bite I eat, so today will be interesting for me and, I suspect, a challenge.

There have been all kinds of critical and funny things written about people snapping photos of their food, and with their cell phones, no less. There are some fairly terrifying food photographs to be found on Instagram, for sure - some of those filters, ouch! - but there's also a lot of beauty. All judgement aside, I think it's fascinating that so many of us feel compelled to photograph what we eat and share it with the world.

I'm curious:  If you photograph your food, why do you do it? What does it mean to you? I'd truly love to know.

See you over on Instagram today, I hope, and back here tonight.

:: :: ::

[With thanks to Tom Roma, for so much inspiration]


Pia said...

I'd almost, almost walked into NaNoWriMo this year; didn't know there was a blog equivalent. I think its very brave of you - both NaBloPoMo and the Instagramming (will go and find you there).
I always forget photography when faced with good food - I've rarely remembered my camera in a good restaurant, or my mother's table. But something that most often reminds me to photograph food is the light. And the way it gives ordinary things such sudden beauty. Or just sharpens its ordinariness, which in turn becomes very beautiful.

Steph said...

When I shoot my food, it's most often to document a moment rather than the food itself. The company I'm with, the experience of eating that meal, or the mundane beauty of it. I think often, especially these days, it's the one quiet moment of reflection I have in my day...breakfast in particular...and it's my way of capturing that deep breath.

And yes, sometimes just because it's pretty and like Pia said, often because of the light. But I think most often it has little to do with the food itself and more to do with the everything around me at the moment.

Can't wait to see all your meals today.

Jess said...

Thanks for your thoughtful replies, ladies.

Pia - I often have the same experience, putting the camera aside completely when there's good eating to be done. That's one of the nice things about writing, I think, that we can be fully present in the moment, then make something of it later. And I'm with you about the light. That's what gets me reaching for the camera, too. Your last lines on ordinariness and beauty - so lovely and smart, Pia. Thank you.

Steph - I think you've hit on something important. You emphasize the "moment" rather than the food itself. I know just what you mean and think you achieve that beautifully in your work. Yet most of your shots are of the still-life variety, gorgeous photos of food front and center. Not so many of people eating or the environs - or am I misremembering? What's interesting - and correct me if I'm wrong about this - is that you feel it's possible to capture the people and the place, the "everything around [you] at the moment," without actually having those things in the frame. (I agree with you, by the way.) Maybe some of it has to do with the way you photograph food as is, in its "natural habitat," which means evidence here and there of the life going on around it...

steph said...

Interesting, Jess. I hadn't thought about it that way, but I think you are right. And it comes from being a little shy about sticking a camera in people's faces. And true, too, that I like to capture everything around me in one detail that has very little of the everything around me. It's always a way that I document and remember that moment, through one detail.

Katie said...

I have a complicated relationship with food photography. Sometimes I don't know if it's about the food, the moment I'm in, or the eye-to-viewfinder therapy, but it is always, always about the light.

And, sometimes I totally hate food photography because I don't want to be in that group of people who's photos are pinterested and tumbled because they're pretty, and well, that happens all day long, and I suppose it's unavoidable.

I'd like my food photography to be evocative in some way, to at least hint at a story, which is why I love taking process shots so much. I like the idea that getting to the completed product is a messy, but beautiful affair, and it's something that people are out of touch with. I went to a dinner recently with 20 people and brought a pie, there were a few other desserts, so by the end of the night there was half of my pie leftover, and I was a little distraught because I didn't want it to go uneaten having spent several hours making it, and I kind of couldn't deal with it ending up in the trash...so, I guess, part of my food photography is intended to be educational.

That said, sometimes it's fun just to make people drool. One of the guys that works at my photo lab was scanning my last batch of film, and came by my flickr stream after I posted an image from it to tell me, "Oh man, I saw this come through the scanning lab...and it made me start to drool." Which totally cracked me up.

So, yeah, I dunno, there are SO many reasons to take food photographs. It's that one subject that everyone can relate to, it takes something ordinary and makes it into art.

Kelsey said...

While I can appreciate the argument for photos for "food moments" and the memories that surround them, I can tell you that my most intense and visceral food experiences have no pictures to tell their story and I can recall the smell, taste, and circumstances like they happened yesterday.

A few years ago a friend and I were traveling through China and spent a few days in Beijing with the family of a colleague of my father. Huanxin, our host "dad" as it were, was very intent upon showing (and feeding) us the best of his hometown. On our last night in the city he took us out "the best peking duck in China," the journey of which to get there was absolutely terrifying and may or may not have included a hit-and-run. We parked on a dark curb and walked through a maze of alleyways to a building with those plastic curtain things covering the doorway, you know, the kind you imagine at the loading dock of your hometown butcher. Through the panes of plastic we enter a concrete building with walls crowded with photos of world leaders, celebrities, and diplomats. I locked eyes with Bill Clinton standing in front of the plastic panes that we had just entered above the foyer and knew that this would not be the night I was sold to some Asian sex-slave ring.

After we were seated Huanxin ordered us the deluxe duck dinner which, of course, included a whole duck, and other Chinese delicacies that we were instructed to wrap in wonton papers and eat like a little burrito. When the meal concluded a waitress grabbed the the arm of me and my friend and ushered us to the roasting chamber where we found dozens of ducks hanging by their necks on hooks over an open flame. We feigned awe. The waitress held up 10 fingers and shouted "10 days, 10 days ducks, 10 days ducks." I looked at my friend and asked, "does she mean like 10 days roasted? 10 days cured? 10 days....?" An English speaking cook interjected "10 days, they are born and then we feed them and then 10 days, this." He points to the ducks. I swear to God I thought I was going to vomit all over the kitchen. The cook proceeded to explain how the ducks are practically intubated from birth with food to grow super big, super quick. All that duck. In my belly. Oh, what I would have given for some Ipecac syrup in that moment. Words cannot describe.

Anyway, this moment, the ducks hanging from the fire-pit, the waitress, the plastic paned door... there are no pictures. And really, I don't need them. They wouldn't do any of it justice. I'm not against taking photos of your food, but the good meals and the epic moments that surround them need no documenting. They are impossible to forget. Memories like these make the mediocre ones totally worth forgetting. So there it is. My case for just being in it. Maybe if I had my iPhone with me in Beijing I would be singing a different tune and I would be sending you a photo of me standing next to a photo of Bill Clinton.

Of course for the blog, Shaun and I photograph the process of creating a meal for an entirely different purpose. Pictures help sell a recipe, there's no arguing otherwise. But for me, it's less about documenting *what* it was we cooked, but to evoke emotion or a call to action or something other than YUM or PRETTY. I hope the pictures tell a story of intimacy and vulnerability and light and joy. We photograph food and body working together to express the humanness of cooking. I know that sounds pretty esoteric, but it feels different than the instagrams of ice cream and burritos. Maybe it's not. Maybe it's all just the story we tell ourselves.

Katie said...

"So there it is. My case for just being in it."

LOVE IT. I think it takes a savvy photographer to know when making a photo enhances an experience, and when it gets in the way of being in it. I was in a pub recently and there was a group of pro-photographers (as in they had 5Ds, and flashes, so we'll call them pro) sitting at a table across from us, they were having some drinks, but then they'd start taking photos with the flashes...and it was first of all annoying, but at the same time I wanted to run over and shake them and say, "what are you doing?! you're out with friends, enjoy their company! now is not the time for badly lit pictures of beer!"

Jess said...

Katie, Kelsey, hello! And wow. Thank you for chiming in so thoughtfully and so generously. I loved reading your words, and I'm sorry for taking a few days to respond. Really, thank you, thank you. For having so much to say, for saying it so beautifully, for saying it here. xoxo.